Department Pushes Diversity Without Preferences

By Sean Cavanagh — April 07, 2004 3 min read
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Less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of affirmative action under certain conditions, the Department of Education has issued a report outlining ways that schools and colleges can achieve diversity without relying on racial preferences.

“Achieving Diversity: Race-Neutral Alternatives in American Education,” from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

The report expands on a similar guide the department released last year in the midst of public debate over the University of Michigan’s admissions policies. Last June, the high court upheld the consideration of race in admissions as long as applicants were given individualized consideration and institutions did not rely on race-based point systems. (“Affirmative Action Rulings Seen Yielding Refinements in College-Entrance Plans,” July 9, 2003.)

“President George W. Bush has challenged the education community to develop innovative ways to achieve diversity in our schools without falling back on illegal quotas,” Kenneth L. Marcus, the Education Department official who oversees the office for civil rights, says in the new report. “Most educational leaders, particularly at the postsecondary level, agree with the importance of that goal.”

The document, “Achieving Diversity: Race-Neutral Alternatives in American Education,” was unveiled March 26.

As a result of reaction to last year’s guide, the department has put more emphasis on K-12 approaches to achieving diversity without racial preferences. Those options include school choice programs; state efforts to align precollegiate curricula with college- admissions requirements; and schools’ use of “lottery” systems, which the report’s authors say can serve to achieve diversity without race-based preferences. The report also describes partnerships between colleges and K-12 systems; race-neutral federal, state, and institutional student-aid programs; and college outreach programs, among other options.

One highlighted outreach program is the “Humanities Out There” initiative, which arranges to have students from the University of California, Irvine, lead workshops on history, social science and other subjects at high schools that have traditionally not sent many students to the campus.

The report also points to state- run “virtual school” programs in Florida, Kentucky, Texas, and other states. Those programs use the Internet to offer students in low-performing and disadvantaged schools a broader range of academic courses, the report says.

In addition, the report cites “early college” high schools, which have drawn support from organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and ask students to follow a rigorous curriculum and expect them to graduate with a college credit. One such school, the Bard High School Early College in New York City, has shown promising results in encouraging students to eventually attend four-year colleges, the report says.

Idea ‘Clearinghouse’

Mr. Marcus said the goal of the report was to help colleges think creatively about admissions and to comply with the Supreme Court’s rulings, not to pressure them into choosing race-neutral options.

“There is so much going on around the country that is creative, constructive, and promising,” he said in an interview last week. “We hope to become a clearinghouse to make information available so that educators don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Angelo Ancheta, the legal director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, generally regarded the report as useful, though he had hoped to see a wider range of legally compliant ideas offered.

“Ultimately, it’s helpful but incomplete,” said Mr. Ancheta, who had submitted a number of briefs to the high court on behalf of several higher education associations in support of Michigan’s policies. “By design, it’s looking at race-neutral programs and not the full spectrum.”


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